“Untold: The Race of the Century” presents the fascinating story of how an Australian yacht crew dared to compete and end America’s 132-year dominance in the esteemed sailing competition, America’s Cup. The documentary film, which is also ‘Untold’s’ last presentation this season, interviews the crew that achieved this almost impossible feat, as they fondly recall their efforts and final triumph. Like always with the case of “Untold” documentaries, “The Race of the Century” is a neatly packed piece for any sports or even underdog story enthusiast.
What is the America’s Cup?
The America’s Cup is essentially a prestigious tournament in sailing sports and is also the oldest international sporting competition that is still continuing. Ever since its inception in 1851 until 1983, the United States of America, represented by the New York Yacht Club, had won the competition single-handedly twenty-four times, making it the longest unbeaten streak in any modern sport. The competition format pits the previous winner as the defendants of the title, against a different team, representing the country in which the yacht has been designed and made, posing as the challengers and trying to win the trophy. The challenging team also has to first compete in a tournament with the other participating countries and win it to qualify for the finals and face the defending champions. The final race series has a set of 7 races in total, with the team winning 4 races the first winning the America’s Cup.
For 132 years, though, the trophy had been won every time by the American team, and the silverware had made its unofficial home inside the New York Yacht Club headquarters. Such was the confidence and high expectations of the Americans from their team that it was widely believed that the first captain to lose America’s Cup to some other team would also lose his head with it, at least figuratively speaking. While many other countries participated in the finals throughout the years, nobody could break the streak until John Bertrand captained his side in 1983 and achieved the unthinkable.
How Did The Australia Ii Team Reach Their Glorious Triumph?
John Bertrand recalls watching or rather hearing it over the radio, the 1962 America’s Cup for the first time, and getting to know of the excitement around the famed tournament. As John gradually learned the skills of sailing, the idea of captaining a boat and participating in America’s Cup became his only true goal. After completing his initial education in Australia, John moved to the United States to study for a Master of Science at MIT. It was during his studies in engineering and aeronautics that he first believed that he could actually achieve his dream. John Bertrand first participated as part of the yacht crew representing Australia in the 1974 America’s Cup. The USA swept the series 4-0 that year and also in the 1977 edition of it. He was also part of the Australian team in the 1980 edition of the tournament, in which the Americans successfully defended the trophy once again. For all these three years, distinguished yachtsman Dennis Conner was part of the American team and had also captained his side in the 1980 America’s Cup. John Bertrand knew well enough the skills that Conner possessed, and his interest in captaining the Australian team in 1983 was perhaps egged on by his tough adversary. However, to build a boat and a team worthy of challenging in the tournament, there was a need for a lot of money. Since the sport of sailing and yachting is essentially an activity for the rich, as designing and building a ship requires quite a large amount of capital, the Australian side found a rich investor in the successful businessman Alan Bond. Although Alan Bond already had a reputation for being a risk-taker and gambler, the Australian yachting side gladly took on the support from 1974.
By 1981, the American side had started preparing the team members physically as well as mentally for the next America’s Cup and had also started building their ship, named “Liberty.” Since it was always a matter of pride for the US government to have won the championship for so many years, the government weapons research center and the Department of Defense provided support in building the defending boat. On the other hand, Alan Bond hired a man named Ben Lexcen to design and build the ship for the Australian competitors. Ben Lexcen was a rather unusual talent who was considered a genius by many for his exceptional expertise in his field despite having very little formal education in the matter. Working at the reputed Netherlands Ship Model Basin at the time, Ben tried innovating some methods to make his boats faster, and it was for America’s Cup that he came up with the idea of a winged keel, which was quite literally designed in the opposite manner to normal keels in racing yachts of the time. The design was finally brought to fruition as the boat was built and named “Australia II.” When John Bertrand and his team arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, for the competition in 1983, they meticulously kept their winged keel hidden with plastic sheets shrouded over it whenever the boat was in the harbor. As the first round of the tournament began among the various countries trying to reach the finals, it became evident that Australia II was far beyond any competition, and the hidden keel soon became the talk of the town. Ben Lexcen even cheekily distributed hand-drawn diagrams of a fake keel to throw off the opponents in the wrong direction, and ultimately, the Australia II crew won the tournament with a brilliant win record.
Team USA and Liberty were next in sight for John Bertrand and his men, as they now hoped to end the home team’s streak. What they did not expect was that the Americans would try to bring them down in any way possible, and this soon became clear. The New York Yacht Club filed an official complaint over the Australians’ secret keel and claimed that it had been made by people of various different nationalities, not just Ben Lexcen. A committee investigated the entire matter, with Lexcen’s connection to the Netherlands known to them. Some of the Dutch engineers at the site stated that the Americans even tried to coerce them into signing a document claiming that they had built the boat for Lexcen. None of the cheap tricks worked, and the committee reported that they found nothing wrong with Australia II’s boat or how it had been built. The final races arrived, and both teams started their fight with equal determination to win, but the Australians suffered a massive setback. In the first two races of the series, Australia II suffered mechanical breakdowns, and Liberty took both wins without any fight. While the American media started to hype a clear win for their team, Australia II won the third race by the biggest margin of victory recorded by any challenging team. The fourth race turned fortunes again, with Liberty winning and leading the series 3-1. Bob Hawke, the erstwhile Prime Minister of Australia, directly addressed the contending team on a news program, telling them how proud he and his countrymen were of their fight in American waters. This, John says, was perhaps the biggest motivation they could get at the time.
In the next two races, Australia II defeated Liberty to astonishingly bring the tie back to a draw of 3-3. Everything rested on the final race, and many Australians flew down to Rhode Island to show their team support. The 7th race went on to be the race of the century for sailing sports enthusiasts, as it had intense drama all throughout. Liberty took the lead in the initial stages and even left Australia II quite behind, but the American captain, Dennis Conner, perhaps grew too confident of their win. While he ended up making a crucial mistake, the Australian team showed brilliant skills to catch up to Liberty and then overtake it. By the end of the race, it was Australia II that had won the day and the championship as well, becoming the first country other than the United States of America to win America’s Cup.
‘The Race of the Century’ Ending: What Was The Outcome Of The Race For Both Sides?
John Bertrand and his team were hailed as heroes as Australians all over the planet celebrated their win. Prime Minister Bob Hawke was part of the celebrations as well and also starred in a public interview with the documentary team shortly before passing away in 2019. As the shrouds were lifted over the winged keel of the Australia II boat, the genius of Ben Lexcen was acknowledged by everyone around. Lexcen sadly passed away just four years after winning America’s Cup. At the time, the Australian team was welcomed back home with a celebratory parade stretching almost twenty-two kilometers. Quite surprisingly, John Bertrand retired from yacht racing after the win, and he did not compete in Australia’s defense of the trophy in the following edition of the tournament. The investor, Alan Bond, became a hugely successful businessman after the win, but finally pleaded guilty to numerous financial crimes in 1997. Not all was so good on the other side, though, as the losing captain, Dennis Conner, was shunned by the New York Yacht Club. He found himself in such financial duress that the accomplished man had to work as a carpet salesman for a few years. However, he did come out of retirement some years later and returned to the sport to captain his country in the 1987 America’s Cup, which the USA won once again. The documentary film ends with a triumphant reminder of Ben Lexcen’s unique design that literally shaped the sport’s future and shows glimpses of preparation for the 2021 America’s Cup event, which was the latest edition of the esteemed and historic tournament.
“Untold: The Race of the Century” is a 2022 Sports Documentary Film Chapman Way and Maclain Way.